Middle East Roundtable /
An Israeli View:
The only recorded instance of settler
leaders and Palestinian leaders discussing the possibility of settlers
remaining on Palestinian territory after Israeli withdrawal, took place ten
years ago in talks I organized in Jerusalem. The discussion of the issue is
recorded in And the wolf shall dwell with the wolf: the settlers and the
Palestinians, a book (in Hebrew) I published four years ago. Some of the
statements made then have only now become truly relevant.
Hassan Asfour, chief Palestinian negotiator:
"We want a democratic country. The presence of Jews will help us ensure
democracy, and will also enable us to serve as a bridge between Israel and
the Arab world. As for the settlements per se, they are a consequence of
occupation. Where their location doesn't constitute a problem for us, we'll
consider the possibility of leaving them in place. But not before a
Palestinian state comes into being in Gaza and the West Bank. . . . [A]
settler can remain . . . as an individual. . . . "
Khalil Shikaki, leading Palestinian political scientist: "I understand [the
settlers'] ideological motivation. But why . . . insist on national
sovereignty? I came . . . to see whether I'm correct or not when I assume
that ideologically-motivated Jews want to live in the Land of Israel for
reasons that transcend politics."
Prof. Yosef Ben Shlomo, settler and teacher of Jewish philosophy: "I want to
stay in Kedumim even if I accept Palestinian sovereignty. I will be like the
first Zionists, who came ready to live on Ottoman-governed land. The
[Israeli left wing] are etatists who see state rule as more important than
the Land of Israel. I cannot accept citizenship in the state as the highest
authority; for me the main thing is Jews living in the Land of Israel."
Notably, among the settler leaders the secular Ben Shlomo was the exception;
the religious settlers who took part in the discussions were deterred by the
notion of living under Palestinian sovereignty, confronting Palestinian
ownership claims on their settlement lands, welcoming Palestinian neighbors
into their settlements, and obeying Palestinian laws. The talks, begun at a
time when the Oslo process was flourishing and the settlers increasingly
apprehensive about their future, petered out after the Rabin assassination.
Events seemed to have passed them by.
Now, ten years later, with the physical removal of settlers for the first
time an impending reality, and in view of the open demand on the part of a
few settlers to actually remain behind, those discussions are more relevant
than ever. Beyond the many tactical and political issues involved, there are
two broader questions at stake.
First, despite years of peace between Israel and two neighboring Arab
countries, open invitations to return by Moroccan and Libyan leaders, and a
two thousand year tradition of Jewish life in Egypt (and discounting Israeli
diplomats and temporary commercial representatives and perhaps a few long
term campers along the Sinai coast), no Israeli Jews have opted to try to
live permanently in Egypt, Jordan, or any other Arab country. In other
words, there is no precedent for Israelis to live in Palestine.
But, secondly, Palestine is not just another Arab country; it is, for Jews,
part of the historic Land of Israel. If Jews are going to reestablish
permanent residence anywhere in the Arab world, Palestine is indeed the most
logical choice. If a few settlers from the northern Gaza Strip are
interested in trying, and declare themselves ready to live under Palestinian
law with all the consequences that entails, why should they be forcibly
removed from their homes by the government of Israel?
Anticipation of Palestinian confiscation of the settlers' lands or
heavy-handed Palestinian police behavior cannot be the reason. If that
happens, the settlers can still pick up and leave and presumably collect
their Israeli compensation check. Rather, the obvious reason is physical
security: the settlers' lives will be in danger. They may at some point have
to be rescued, their blood may be spilled or they may spill Palestinian
blood, and the ensuing security and political complications could be costly.
So there is a risk involved, not merely at the personal level but at the
On the other hand, the experiment the settlers are volunteering for has
important potential implications for the future of Israeli-Palestinian
relations. Today we are preparing to remove 8,000 settlers in what is liable
to be a violent and highly traumatic operation. Yet tomorrow, in order for
any sort of Palestinian state to emerge, we will have to remove at least
another 50,000. Today, the settlement blocs and East Jerusalem Jewish
neighborhoods continue to expand. Tomorrow, the prospect of locating
territory with which to compensate a Palestinian state for settlement bloc
annexation by Israel becomes increasingly daunting.
If settlers could remain behind as residents of Palestine, a new and far
more flexible model could emerge for drawing borders and swapping land.
Hebron/Kiryat Arba, for example, could conceivably maintain its Jewish
settler population without being annexed to Israel. Settlers living on land
intended for the Palestinian state could contemplate a third
option--remaining in place--in addition to the options of fighting the
Israeli government tooth and nail or accepting compensation and relocating.
The entire process could be less traumatic, hence more acceptable to larger
numbers of Israelis.
Having participated in serious discussions of the issues involved, and in
view of the challenges and dangers they would face, I personally am
skeptical regarding the staying power of any settlers who choose to remain.
But if they want to try. . . ?- Published 18/4/2005 (c) bitterlemons.org
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet
publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic
Studies at Tel Aviv University, and a former senior adviser to PM Ehud
Bitterlemons-international.org is an internet
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